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Time for a Roads Tax?

November 08, 1987

Voters in San Diego last Tuesday approved a half-cent increase in the sales tax for 20 years to raise $2.2 billion for transportation improvements. In 1980, voters in Los Angeles County approved a similar sales tax measure. Between those elections, Orange County voters in 1984 rejected a one-cent sales tax increase for transportation needs. And in 1982, San Diego County voters also rejected a so-called "local option fuel tax."

San Diego residents were fed up enough with traffic to reverse themselves. Orange County residents may be, too. They at least ought to have another opportunity, but even an advisory vote that was being pushed by Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder has been put on the back burner and is drawing little enthusiasm from the board.

We can understand the political reluctance supervisors have after the resounding 1984 defeat of Proposition A, but this is 1987 and, as San Diego officials discovered, some things, such as traffic and voter tolerance of it, have changed, and not for the better.

The fact is that Orange County is now the only heavily populated county in the state without a special transit sales tax. And it needs one.

More roads and freeway lanes are needed. Existing roads need to be improved. And that takes money--money in large amounts that city, county, state and federal treasuries don't have. Road congestion will continue to mount, even with limited construction, as long as new drivers come of age every year, high home prices force people to commute to their jobs in Orange County from their homes in adjoining counties, and business continues to boom.

One answer to the traffic dilemma is a modest half-cent increase in the sales tax. An alternative is a sizable increase in the gasoline tax (county officials are talking about 9 cents a gallon). Although we're all for user fees that serve to tax people directly benefiting from a service, in this case the sales tax would be fairer, considering all the commerce that moves on the freeways. That use benefits all residents, not just motorists.

Polls have shown that county residents want road improvements. They just don't want to pay for them. Something for nothing, however, isn't any more available in the public sector than it is in the private marketplace. If residents want better roads and less traffic congestion, they must pay for it, one way or another.

Some changes can be made for relatively little or no cost, such as car pooling, commuter lanes, transit ways and flexible work hours to spread the traffic over more time, instead of having everyone on the road commuting at the same time. But those approaches also require changes in life style and routine that Orange County motorists, thus far, have been slow in adopting.

Surveys last year uncovered growing resident dissatisfaction with the traffic congestion. The number of people reporting a "great problem" during their commute doubled since 1982, and county motorists, we suspect, may be just as fed up with traffic conditions as their neighbors in Los Angeles and San Diego--maybe even disgusted enough to add that half-cent to the sales tax. A half-cent sales tax increase for transportation should be put back on the ballot next June. This time it should be passed.

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